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In Northwest Alaska, worries persist over offshore oil and gas development

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder

“We are not ready,” was the phrase heard repeated at last week’s hearing in the Northwest Alaska town of Kotzebue on the federal offshore oil-and-gas-leasing program.

Most of the dozen or so people who showed up to testify at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management meeting were skeptical about the wisdom of allowing further oil and gas leases in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.

“This lease sale caught a lot of people by surprise,” said Ukallaysaaq Tom Okleasik, planning director with the Northwest Arctic Borough, noting that existing leases were already controversial. The current draft proposal covers lease sales for the next five years.

Okleasik showed a video of a man-made island in the Beaufort Sea being overrun by ice flows. Ice toppled retaining walls and the sound of twisting metal was audible. Okleasik asked how engineers could safely prepare for such a force.

“We live in a pretty unpredictable environment,” he said.

READ MORE: Does oil-spill response video live up to Shell's reputation?

Others echoed his comments, saying the experiences in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill should serve as a stark reminder of what can happen. Earl Natchiq Kingik said he traveled to the Gulf Coast after the oil spill and was horrified.

“I went to a cooperative agency meeting... and all these different agencies were all pointing the fingers at each other,” Kingik said. “That didn’t look too good to me.”

Kingik said he went out on a boat and witnessed the spill’s horrible stench and burning fumes. He flew above the spill in a plane and saw the booms trying to contain the oil.

“They were not working,” he said. “Oil was going over them. I don’t want that to happen in the Arctic. Is Alaska ready?

“Alaska’s not ready.”

Hard to respond to Arctic oil spills?

Kingik and others pointed to the lack of resources in the Arctic, from icebreakers to the personnel and infrastructure needed to support clean-up crews.

Qaiyaan Su’esu’e of Barrow said the climate of the area where leases are proposed is far tougher.

“There is no proven method to clean up a spill. There is no Coast Guard up in Barrow; we have no road system. It baffles me to think that Shell can come to our communities and promise that they can clean up 95 percent. The Gulf couldn’t come anywhere near that,” Su’esu’e said.

Others pointed out that weather conditions often prohibit anyone from getting anywhere in Northwest Alaska.

“This country has amazing extremes in it,” said Lincoln Saito. “When you see a blizzard blowing at 60 to 80 mph for 20 hours straight, it’s amazing. Quick response? You can’t even get a plane here. You can’t even get a helicopter.”

'Everything shown is kind of a cartoon'

Okleasik questioned the fact that Shell’s proposed cap and containment system was only an engineered drawing.

“Everything shown is kind of a cartoon,” he said. “It’s not been physically built. It’s never been tested in the ice conditions.”

Bureau Director Tommy Beaudreau said the capping system would have to be on hand before any drilling permits are issued.

“You have to have a capping system online and you have to demonstrate that it works,” Beaudreau said. “It is a concern to me that this system hasn’t been built yet. I told them every time that I meet with them that they aren’t going to drill until they do so. It is our responsibility to hold industry’s feet to the fire and ensure that they comply with our rules, and (ensure) any operation they go forward with is conducted safely.”

Beaudreau said anyone drilling must prove they can cap their well in 15 days, a detail that met with some discontent from the audience. He said he estimates the wells in the Arctic could discharge 20,000 barrels of oil a day. At 42 gallons in a barrel, that’s 12.6 million gallons if the well were untapped for the full window, or 300,000 barrels. By comparison, the Exxon Valdez spill, by comparison, was estimated to be about 350,000 barrels.

Concerns voiced at the meeting went beyond the call for more time to prepare for potential drilling. Several people were frustrated at the three-volume, 1,000-page document outlining the drilling proposal.

“I pay attention to these things, and I can’t keep up with what’s in these documents,” said Darcie Warden, who works for the Alaska Wilderness League. “I feel like it’s the agency’s job to prepare the communities in a fair way.”

Communication breakdown?

Some called for a day-long briefing for people, allowing them to better understand what is being proposed. Others questioned why more people didn’t participate in the meeting, but several who were there said the constant barrage of meetings wears down residents.

Kingik said some people found the meetings daunting.

“People quit going to the meetings because they couldn’t understand what people were talking about,” he said.

Okleasik said the Northwest Arctic Borough was dissatisfied with the level of communication between the borough and the bureau regarding the lease sales, and called for the creation of a regional citizens advisory committee to oversee future activity by oil industry in the Arctic. He also noted that traditional knowledge needs to be considered on the same level as science.

Several people questioned why comments made earlier in the process hadn’t yet been incorporated into the draft. Testimony had been taken on traditional hunting areas, but those areas part of the proposed drilling areas.

Bureau officials said the draft plan was just a draft, and comments would be considered and incorporated. The final decision, however, rests in the hands of the Secretary of the Interior.

The bureau will accept written comments on the draft proposal through Jan. 9. 

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder.